I imagine that any human that rides the DK200 has realized at some point (and, likely, at some point during race day itself), that 200 miles truly is an insane distance to ride on gravel hills. I finished my first two DK200s under the stars, and despite the fact that I did not meet my original goal on either of those initial races, it was exhilarating to cross that finish line.
My first DK was in 2014. I moved to Emporia, Kansas to start my first job as a classroom teacher. Seeing my commuter bike in my classroom, students demanded to know if I would be riding in the DK200.
I was not new to cycling. Living on the Hudson Trail in my hometown of Manhattan, KS, my bike was my freedom, but also my joy. This became a theme in my life- my bike was a tool for sport, commuting, and enjoying Earth’s glorious beauty. While living in Slovenia without a car, I took my bike on cross-country treks to visit friends, and realized that I could do the same thing in Kansas. Thus, I began training by body for long distance events before I ever considered racing.
In 2014, my first spring in Emporia, I gave in to the pestering encouragement from my students and signed up and trained for my first DK- the half pint. My training was basically a few short 20 to 45 mile rides with a group of Emporia riders (and amazing people) that dubbed themselves the Human Power Company. A couple of hometown riders from the Human Power Company graciously allowed me to accompany them on race day, which quieted my fears about maintenance issues sometime during the race (at that point, I was not quite sure that I could change a tire on my own).
Race day was amazing. For those of you who have never ridden a DK, you need to believe everyone that discusses the thrill of the finish line and the beauty of the Flint Hills. Each individually would make it worth doing this race, but both components together makes the race beyond amazing. To top it off, 2014 was a dry, nearly windless year, so the entire day was perfect.
2014 felt so good I had to keep going. My compatriots, who became my teammates, encouraged me to do the full pint. Kristi Mohn (riding partner, friend, and local-badass-inspirational woman) pushed me to train harder and ride more. I put in the miles, I learned basic maintenance, I figured out what to eat, and I lined up on that starting line to face the cold mud in 2015. It was hard, and less-than-wonderful, but I finished.
My goal this year, and every year that I’ve ridden the full pint, was to beat the sun. I started racing in the Dirty Kanza the year that “Race the Sun” became a race-within-the-race, and the concept seemed so cool to me that I knew I would shoot for it. Could I ride 200+ miles before the sun tucked under the horizon? Who knew? I finished around 10:45pm on my first two attempts, and felt a bit afraid to admit that I was shooting for the same goal again. Nevertheless, I felt almost “at ease” at the starting line this year. Perhaps because I’d already had a few DKs under my belt, perhaps because I wasn’t new to gravel racing anymore, or perhaps because I was too afraid to admit how much I truly wanted to roll in while the sun was still shining.
Race day was incredible. The sun was shining (but not too much), the wind was out of the southeast (but not too strong). I found some amazing people to ride with who not only let me draft, but also let me pull (while singing 80s rock songs). I felt so comfortable crushing over those large chert rocks (or small chert boulders??) with my Lauf fork that I had a blast for most of the day. My body was not taking in the food as I’d hoped it would, but I was still cruising at a healthy pace. I rolled into the third checkpoint feeling pretty bad, but I had right around three hours to make it back home before sunset and there was a storm rolling in, so I couldn’t stay and rest for too long. My legs did most of the last 44 miles without my mind getting in the way. The south wind was picking up, and with it my assurance that I was truly going to make it to Emporia before dark. After crossing Bird Bridge and making my final cut east, I looked down to see the time. 7:30pm. I was going to do it. I was finally going to come in before the spotlights even turned on. Right then and there, I could feel the warm tears rolling over the dirt caked on my face and had to convince myself to get it together so as to not impede the final leg of the journey.
At 8:07pm, I crossed the finish line. I did not just beat the sun, I crushed it. My stomach was absolutely in knots from the day, but in those moments in the chute, elation won.
The excitement in Emporia is already palpable. Shops have posted the DK schedule, there are chalk displays welcoming cyclists into town every other block, t-shirts in widows that boast gravel grinding and the Flint Hills. One local teacher (this one) has been pumping students up for the occasion by showing the clean version of the video I Ride For Her that Salsa Cycles made after the 10-year anniversary race1. Several twelve-year-olds have promised to be at the DK starting line and finish line, relishing in the thrill of Emporia’s wildest day. They are ready and waiting.
Do I feel prepared for the race? I really do not know. This spring my husband and I have been preparing to move to Atlanta, and thus my training has been interrupted by life stuff (i.e. applying for jobs, searching for an apartment, etc.). I would feel better with a few extra spring 100+ mile rides under my belt, but as is, I will have to rely on the training that I have done throughout the year. I do not feel wholly unprepared- last week I did the 2016 leg 2 and 3 of the DK200- the 115 mile southern-most section of the race that tackles some pretty serious elevation. I remembered most of leg 2 with its gorgeous long, slow climbs, in the region that the locals refer to as “Texaco”, but I blocked out most of leg 3 after taking a fairly serious spill last year 2. Other than being surprised at how incredibly beautiful this leg was, I marveled at how well the fork did on the rough rollers southeast of Eureka. There were a few jagged ruts that I am sure I would have regretted plowing over on the old fixed fork, but that barely gave me pause on the Lauf grit. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had I ridden with the grit last year… would I have taken that spill at all? It I had, I am sure that the fork would have taken the edge off of the road afterwards. As it was, I felt every bump in the road for the last 70 miles of the course last year, the taxing gravel tugged painfully on the skin around my open wound. Needless to say, I am thrilled to be doing the race this year with the Lauf grit.
Ready or not for the physical test of 200 gravel miles, I cannot help but get jazzed up with everyone else for the weeks ahead. I love seeing my town full of happy strangers. I love hearing that sound of 4,000 cleats clipping in. I love the thrill of not knowing how I will do, but racing the sun anyway. I love that exhilarating feeling of riding down the chute full of happy strangers ringing cowbells, and friends cheering me on. And I love coming down that final stretch of Commercial Street, knowing that I have pushed myself beyond my limits.
Bring on the DK!
I was lucky enough to spend Earth Day on a bike this year- grinding gravel, crushing hills, pushing further, and basking in the incredible beauty of my prairie home. Last weekend, after several weekends of travel and April showers keeping me away, the sun reappeared and again called me out to play. My route was a 115 mile stretch of nonstop-chert-covered hills under an unending blue sky, no man-made structure in sight save the occasional silo or ranch fence.
This landscape is a masterpiece.
It was not until 2005 that I realized it. I had spent my first summer out of high school at a camp built on the coast of British Columbia, and most of my new friends were all from the south. They were, thus, returning to the Smoky Mountains or the coast of the Carolinas, and I was a real baby about returning to Kansas. I anticipated a boring drive home, full of boring trees and boring grass and boring clouds. What I found instead was the majestic beauty of the Flint Hills. Now I know that it is impossible to cruise through on a warm, sunny day, and to not be captivated by the pristine & untouched blanket of prairie on either side of the gravel footpath.
This Earth Day, I relished in my gratitude for Kansas limestone- not just because it decorates the grass and looks so darn pretty, but because it has rendered this region ill fit for anything except cattle grazing (and, of course, riding a bicycle). This lucky misfortune has preserved a truly special place.
I thought I’d given up any future as an athlete when I quit volleyball in the 10th grade because the director of the high school play finally recognized my “supreme” acting potential (I was cast as a talking flower). Despite my venture into the arts being less-than-fruitful, I did not return to competitive sports, team or otherwise1. Therefore, when I moved to Emporia, the home of the Dirty Kanza 200, to teach 7th grade science, cycling was casual, relaxing, and functional; I never imagined that endurance gravel racing would play such a big part in my life.
Living in Emporia I’ve learned more about [bicycle] forks than I ever anticipated. I arrived in Emporia with my beloved, bright orange, Specialized Tricross, set up as a commuting bike2. In the spring of my first year teaching, I was riding home as quickly as I possibly could straight into the strong Kansas wind, and I realized…
daaaaaaang! I’m going pretty fast!
As any curious individual would do, I checked the speedometer on my handle bars. 17mph… 18mph… 19mph and then – well, you can only imagine3.
I had to say goodbye to my beautiful orange fork (as well as some chunks of my skin which were, thankfully, sewn together quite wonderfully by the Emergency Staff at Newman Regional Health4). I replaced my fork with another fixed fork, essentially all the only fork style I knew of until Lauf Forks graciously invited me to be one of their “Dirty dozen”.
The Lauf Grit replaced the fixed carbon fork on my otherwise-aluminum Salsa Warbird. It was a little hard to see the orange stripe on the fixed fork go, but only until I took the Lauf Grit out on gravel. The Grit has a mechanical suspension. It doesn’t require fluid maintenance or anything else out of my comfort zone, and it barely adds any weight to my ride. What it does add is comfort and stability.
The first thing I noticed in my first 30 seconds on gravel was that the tight washboard road I was riding on felt like nothing at all. It was a smooth road, as far as I was concerned. Similarly, the chunky gravel I encountered around Council Grove yesterday was reduced to pebbles. Last weekend I cruised in and out of small water crossings like it was no big deal, with a confidence that I have learned is merited with the Grit. As the winter5 wraps up here in Kansas, I can barely contain my excitement for traversing the Flint Hills on my Warbird, Grit in tow. Hardly anything is better than crushing these hills with spring showing its face all around you.
This year will be my third DK200. I want to beat the sun. I want to make my team proud6. I want to celebrate the beauty of the Flint Hills while pushing myself to and beyond my limits.